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Mom dies in Pennsylvania jail serving 48 hours for truancy fines

A 55-year-old woman died in a Pennsylvania jail serving time for truancy fines
A 55-year-old woman died in a Pennsylvania jail serving time for truancy finesImage courtesy of sakhorn38 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

According to ABC7 News on June 13, a Pennsylvania mom of seven children died in jail during a 48-hour jail sentence she was serving because she couldn’t pay approximately $2,000 in truancy fines and court costs. The debt involved several of her children.

Eileen DiNino, 55, from Reading, Pa. was found dead in her cell, halfway through a 48-hour sentence. "Did something happen? Was she scared to death?" said District Judge Dean R. Patton, who reluctantly sent DiNino to the Berks County jail Friday after she failed to pay the debt for four years.

Judge Patton called DiNino a “lost soul.” He questioned laws that criminalize truancy or failing to pay a trash bill. "This lady didn't need to be there," Patton said. "We don't do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago."

According to the Reading Eagle, over 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County, Pa. alone over truancy fines in the last 14 years, most of them women. "What you see is kind of a slice of inner-city life," said lawyer Richard Guida, who handled truancy cases, including DiNino's, as a Reading School District solicitor for more than a decade. "The people home taking care of the children are mothers. Many times, they're overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels."

Eileen DiNino had been cited many times. She simply couldn’t afford it. "The woman didn't have any money," said Diana L. Sealy, whose son married DiNino's daughter. "Years ago, I tried helping her out. She had all these kids."

Ms. DiNino came to court clean and neat to surrender. "She was a different person. She was cleaned up, smiling," Patton said. "I think she realized, when this is done, the weight was off her shoulders." The jail sentence, when completed, would have erased her debt to the county.

Judge Patton says he has lost sleep over DiNino’s death, although he does think that a short-term jail sentence can sometimes “break the habit” of parents who don’t pay simply because they don’t want to. He says the truancy rate in the district has dropped over 30 percent since the policy was instituted a few years ago.

Berks County Commissioner Kevin R. Barnhardt, chairman of the county prison board, stated, “This woman died in prison, away from her family. And for what?”

That’s a good question, Mr. Barnhardt. If we no longer have debtors’ prisons, as Judge Patton stated, why was a mother of seven children, four still at home, sent to jail for truancy fines? Wouldn’t community service or another type of non-incarceration program have been more appropriate, not to mention more humane?

Eileen DiNino’s cause of death has yet to be determined. It is not thought to be suspicions in nature.